What a hurting community says it needs from its Asian American vice president

After six Asian women were killed at three Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday, the phrase "stop Asian hate" trended on social media for two days and a national spotlight was cast on a year of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. As a community grieves and says it is gripped by fear, civil rights leaders say people are looking to the vice president, the most prominent Asian American in politics.

Asian American leaders said the 2020 White House was one of the primary propellers of a rising number of anti-Asian incidents during the pandemic. As former President Donald Trump used terms like “kung flu” and “China virus,” attacks, shunning and hate toward Asian Americans soared.

But in 2021, there’s an Asian American woman at the helm. Her job right now is critical, AAPI activists said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden gave statements to the press Wednesday condemning the Atlanta killings and extending thoughts to the victims’ families. They are both scheduled to travel to Georgia on Friday in their first scheduled joint trip since taking office. Officials said the two will talk to Asian American community leaders, but the details of the trip, including whether or not they will meet the families of the shooting victims, remain unclear.

“Our prayers are extended to the families of those who have been killed,” Harris said. “To our Asian American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged. … None of us should ever be silent in the face of any form of hate.”

Activists said that as an Asian American woman herself, Harris has the potential to play a comforting, uniting role right now. Her Asian identity also puts her in a more front-facing position as one of the only AAPI members of Biden’s Cabinet. For the first time in two decades, the administration does not have a single Asian American in a secretary-level position.

“Given that she is multiracial and is South Asian, there’s an important role that she can play in expressing the need for solidarity among AAPI groups,” said Sayu Bhojwani, the founder of Women’s Democracy Lab, an organization dedicated to supporting women once they’ve been elected to office.

“I've personally been told that, ‘Go back to where you came from,’” Harris said last year at an event.

Bhojwani said Biden’s role is also critical in denouncing the attacks as an act of terrorism and as stemming from white supremacy.

“This is not just about stopping AAPI hate. This is about stopping white terrorism and white nationalism,” she said.

Harris has been open about her own experiences with racism in the past, including in 2019 and 2020 when Trump questioned her eligibility for office because her parents are immigrants as well as called her “angry” and “aggressive.”

At a roundtable with other women of color in July 2019, she addressed racist comments made by the former president, who told several women of color in Congress to "go back" to the "places from which they came."

“I've personally been told that, ‘Go back to where you came from,’” Harris said at the event. “I'm going to tell you what my mother told me: Don't you ever let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.”

This firsthand knowledge of the emotional and mental impacts of racism make Harris' words and actions especially meaningful right now, according to civil rights leaders.

"In this moment, the lived experiences of our leaders matter," Jiny Kim, vice president of policy and programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in a statement. "Vice President Kamala Harris, as a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants … is in a unique position to voice the needs and fears of communities that have been at times stigmatized, demonized, and made to feel foreign in their own country."

"In this moment, the lived experiences of our leaders matter," Jiny Kim, vice president of policy and programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in a statement.

An analysis of police data in major cities across the U.S. showed that there was a nearly 150 percent increase in hate crimes against Asians in 2020, though overall hate crimes decreased by 7 percent. According to new data by Stop AAPI Hate, of the almost 3,800 hate incidents reported over a year of the pandemic, women were the victims 68 percent of the time.

This is a crucial time for Asians to seek solidarity and comfort in each other, Bhojwani said, and that means being inclusive. As a South Asian, Harris has the potential to build coalitions.

“I think that South Asians often are not seen as and do not see themselves as Asian Americans,” Bhojwani said. “So I think she, by identifying with the AAPI experience explicitly, she can broaden the lens of who is seen as AAPI.”

In an interview last June with the Los Angeles Times podcast “Asian Enough,” Harris spoke openly about her identity as a South Asian and the historical oppression of Asian Americans in the U.S. She said she hopes that white politicians step up in advocating for marginalized groups.

“It should not be incumbent on just an AAPI elected official to do the work of speaking out against these injustices,” she said. “It's just not on the shoulders of those of us who come from these communities to speak about it.”

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